Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Written and directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

MI_–_Fallout.jpgOccasionally I push myself to challenge my biases and go see an action movie. Sometimes, maybe it’s a mood thing, I somehow find myself enjoying them. Mission Impossible: 6 was one such movie. I now find myself trying to figure out what was appealing about it. Part of it no doubt was that protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was accompanied by two less macho sidekicks (Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)), making it endearing in much the same way as Disney animated movies.

The sidekicks as individual characters, however, are not all that memorable. Dunn is a good-kind-of-misfit in the work and is part of a couple decent gags, but there’s not much to write home about him. Stickell meanwhile is charming and a subtler misfit, but again, he’s nothing to write home about. Luckily, these characters are not the be all and end all of the film’s comedic elements. Mission Impossible 6 is, of course, ridden with fight scenes. While many of these can be described as performances of traditional action ambition, I could not help but get a whiff of comedy out of some them. There is one scene in which Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Caville), fight an enemy target in a bathroom. The fight seems easy at first, but when it is disrupted by some immature, passerby men, the enemy suddenly regains form. What proceeds from there is an extended sequence in which a high stakes, high tech fight is somehow carried out with fists and a urinal pipe.

The subtle comedy of Mission Impossible 6 is complimented by its surprisingly high dialogue to action ration (at least in its first two thirds) as well as an absurd sequence in which plot twist after plot twist is thrown upon each other (eventually its gets absurd, but it’s largely an engaging moment). None of this is enough for me to describe Mission Impossible 6 as a comedy, but comedy is certainly an ingredient in the Mission Impossible stew.

And ingredients, are what I think makes this movie work. It’s a film that offers a little bit of something for everybody, and even if those somethings aren’t always top notch, they give the film an engaging enough texture to make is exiting for those who might be bored by other action flicks.

Mission Impossible 6’s little-bit-of-everything approach is largely effective, but it creates odd results as well. The film’s villains are described as anarchists, and in the opening scene, one rants at Hunt & crew with delirious, but moral conviction, insisting they share his manifesto with the world. The idea that these characters are idealists is repeated throughout the film, yet it’s never fully developed. Meanwhile, Hunt & co. ignore their ideals, treating and discussing them as purely evil beings. It is as if the film’s writer thought: a lot of viewers want to see complex and sympathetic villains, but a lot more viewers just want a tradition good-vs-evil smash-off. The result is that the film caters a bit to both crowds. As I said, this approach works: the supposed complexity of the villains no doubt left me a bit more engaged by the evil, even as the logical part of my brain was left frustrated by the fact that the villain’s motifs were never properly elaborated on or made truly sympathetic.

The character of Hunt is similarly written as complicated-but-not. An early tension in the film is that Hunt values the lives of his friends even when doing so could compromise his mission. This supposed idealism puts him at odds with the CIA. While this detail comes across as potentially interesting when raised at the beginning and end of the film, it also feels phoney as it never really describes Hunt’s character. He comes across as a largely generic, calmly calculated, cool-with-violence action hero.

Mission Impossible 6 is, in short, a bit fraudulent. I use that word as an observation not an insult. It is undoubtedly very good, but parts of its quality comes from the fact that it poses as a “smart movie.” It is not ,ideas wise at least, a deep work, but it goes to show that sometimes even hinting at having ideas can make your movie effective. At the same time, it leaves me longing for a Mission Impossible like movie that could be as ambitious about its themes as about its stunts.

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Directed by: Edgar Wright Written by: Wright and Simon Pegg

Shaun-of-the-dead.jpg         I tried to watch George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead recently. I derived some mild pleasure out of the experience, but only because there’s something about the not-quite modern aesthetic of the 70s-90s that pleases me. For the most part I was frustratingly bored by what may be the film with the highest action to substantive content ratio I’d ever seen. I was thus thoroughly surprised that I quite enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, a film supposedly inspired by Romero’s work.

This is not to say that there is no simiilarity between the two zombie films. In addition to prominently featuring zombies the two movies can both be said to make light of killing. Dawn does this simply in that it features armed characters who show little to no hesitancy when it comes to carrying out their kill-or-be-killed mission. Shaun, by contrast makes light of killing by throwing in jokes that highlight how other zombie films make light of killing. Shaun’s characters speak like they are out of episodes of Flight of the Conchords: in an awkward banter that is neither deadpan nor fully engaged with the serious events that surround it.

The joy of Shaun of the Dead may is in fact, that it manages to be comedic without really undermining its status as a horror film. The film follows Shaun (Simon Pegg), a man who can’t get his act together, as he helps his friends and family escape the fate of being bitten by zombies. Zombie attacks turn victims into zombies themselves, meaning Shaun and his cohorts are increasingly surrounded by an ever-growing rank of enemies. This structure inevitably produces suspense, suspense that is maintained throughout the film: even in its silly moments. Shaun of the Dead’s jokes do not break the illusion of horror and suspense they simply capitalize on it. We see limbs ripped apart, and bodies torn to shreds, their innards ripped out like spaghetti. This violence produces screams from the humans: who scream not so much out of genuine fear, but as if they are in a screaming contest.

Shaun of the Dead is a film filled with action, and yet as someone who does not like action, I did not feel alienated by these moments. That’s because bits like “the screaming contest” mean that Shaun of the Dead‘s characters are “talking” even when the film is caught up in action moments. Another such moment features characters beating up their enemies while Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” plays on a juke box. This is not mere background music, as the characters’ attacks line up with it perfectly. Sure, the events depicted are a life-and-death battle, but what we see are characters moving-in-sync-with-a-rhythm: dancing their troubles away.

Shaun of the Dead also distinguishes itself from Dawn of the Dead in that, given that it’s a quick, character-dense action movie, it nonetheless manages to meaningfully differentiate and create tensions between its characters: they are not mere bodies to carry guns in the zombie war. Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and reluctant travelling companion David (Dylan Moran) stand out amongst the film’s personalities. Shaun’s story, meanwhile, is that of a loser making something of himself, and it is, nonetheless, free of a forced, phoney moral: it’s driven by jokes and character relationships instead. Shaun is a loveable loser, but he feels three-dimensional and not a mere trope, in large part because one of his key motivators is his loyalty to his even bigger loser-friend (Nick Frost). This loyalty is not unjustified: both characters are developed protagonists in the piece: the difference being that one is more aware of his shortcoming than the other.

Shaun of the Dead may not be that deep, perhaps not even as deep as the source material it references. However, it is constantly alive and constantly true to its characters. If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of liking a lowbrow zombie movie, but can’t imagine yourself actually enjoying such a film, then surprisingly, there somehow exists a work , in Shaun of the Dead ,that can fulfill your oxymoronic needs.